Tag Archives: “Essex Serpent”

My top five reads of 2016

10 Jan

I was surprised to realise that I didn’t revisit any books in 2015. I don’t mean those books I read and then read to Mrs Van but old favourites. To make up for it this year I managed two: Chinua Achebe’s wonderful Things Fall Apart and Sylvester Stallone’s compelling Paradise Alley. You might think we’re looking at opposite ends of the spectrum there but actually there’s a good deal of similarity in terms of character arcs. And if you are thinking that we’re looking at opposite ends I’d urge you to be surprised and seek them both out. Good stories are good stories no matter who tells them.

I also said I was going to try and read more diversely in 2016 but in the end I don’t think I did. Gender-wise, three quarters of my reading was written by women but probably only about 10% of my reading was ‘non-white’. I think this year I should just aim to read a bit more than last year. That would be a good place to start.

I gave up on three books last year (two more than the year before). One of those books got shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award and another is, I think, currently in the Times bestseller lists. So what do I know! This is I think proof positive that you should never feel guilty about letting a book go. If it’s not working for you there will be something else that does. The only thing I’d say is don’t shoot it down for other people. There were also three that I finished but didn’t really get on with (and two of those have done very well for themselves, thank you, so again – what do I know).

But what about those I did like! Before I get into top tens and top fives let me mention Sceptre’s excellent short story collection How Much The Heart Can Hold. It’s a superb collection, well worth getting hold of and the kind of thing I’d love to see more of as a reader. It’s a great showcase for seven writers whose work you’ll likely be seeking out after reading their particular takes on the various aspects of love.

As ever, whittling down to a top ten is a difficult business. In fact, it was hard enough to get down to a top thirteen, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. There were two or three absolute standout books for me (yes, I think this time a top three would actually have been quicker) so the tricky knot to unpick was which of that collection of seven or so brilliant books would creep into the top five. Laline Paull’s The Bees (which is undoubtedly Mrs Van’s favourite of the year), Shelley Harris’s Vigilante (which is probably Mrs Van’s other favourite of the year), Claire King’s heart-breaking Everything Love Is, Rebecca MacKenzie’s In A Land Of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of the Sea Maid and Janet Ellis’s singular debut The Butcher’s Hook all almost made the top five (see how I got away with a top 11 there!). I would wholeheartedly urge you to add these to your reading lists if you’ve not picked them up yet. They are all very different but they are all very, very good.

And so, in the order that I read them, here are my top five reads of 2016.

Back in January I had the great good fortune to meet up with The Chimes by Anna Smaill. It was the first book I read in 2016 and even then I knew it would have to be a very special year for it not to feature in my top 5 come the end. The world-building, the awareness of language, the characters, the story itself, it’s all supremely handled. It’s wholly accessible too. I’d have no problem recommending The Chimes to young young-adult readers. Anna was also kind enough to do a Q&A with me.

February brought a recommendation from Isabel Costello (author of Paris Mon Amour and curator of the literary sofa), Mend The Living by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore). Isabel can always be relied upon to turn up an excellent French novel in translation and this was no exception. It is an extraordinarily powerful read, a forensic examination of what the heart is and what it represents. No surprise it was longlisted for the Man Booker International award.

On to July and I finally got my hands on a copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Definitely the prettiest book this year (the cover is gorgeous) it’s also a sumptuous read. The language is delightful, and so very quiet. It’s a sibilant whisper at your ear, at once engaging and unnerving. Waterstones made it their Book Of The Year 2016.

October brought a very special book my way. It’s not actually out until April 2017 but I can’t wait to hear what everyone else makes of it. These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper might well prove to be one of those light-the-touch-paper-and-stand-back books. I’m guessing the word prescient is going to crop up a lot too. What I can tell is that it’s excellent. The characters are delightful or infuriating or charming or terrifying, each in their turn, and the story Fran Cooper weaves in and around them is glorious. I read it to Mrs Van recently and it was great to see her head nodding or shaking in all the same places as mine  did, and that page 183 had the same effect on her too.

November finally brought me round to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, a book I’d been aware of for a while. The thing I was most glad about is that I’d managed to bypass all the hype that surrounded this book and its twist so that, when the twist came it brought with it all the impact the author surely intended. It’s one of those moments that acts like a fillet knife, peeling the book’s flesh all the way back to the bone so you can’t help but re-examine it. It’s not all about the twist though. The story is compelling and heart-breaking, the language is sublime, the way the whole novel hangs together is truly a thing to behold. It’s quite masterful.



Five very different novels this time, though each is expertly constructed and skilfully told. There is no doubt you’re in safe hands as a reader and that’s a luxury that really allows you to inhabit the stories, to get up close and feel the things these characters feel. Here’s to more of this in 2017!

Van has finished reading…The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

14 Jul

That thing where you pick up a book and it feels as beautiful as it looks and there’s an energy about it that positively defies the use of a comma in your first sentence. Then you open the book and begin to read…

You’re not reading your way into a story. You’re not taking in the surroundings and building a picture in your head. You are quite delightfully and unceremoniously dropped into the middle of a feeling, a sensation. It’s a cold hand at the base of the spine, hairs lifting at the nape of your neck, bristling along your arms. It’s a whisperer, this book. It’s a body standing just behind your right shoulder where you can’t quite see it, unrolling the story in a hush across your ear. It is fabulous.


Cora Seagrave, recently widowed, finds herself on the Essex coast seeking evidence behind the rumours that abound of a terrible serpent that crawls up out of the sea to take livestock or people. Rational and independent, Cora believes something prehistoric to be at work, a ‘living fossil’. Just as steadfast in his belief there is a rational explanation – though naturally opposed to Cora’s reading of events – is local vicar William Ransome. As staunch as each other in their views, each recognises a kindred nature in the other and a turbulent time ahead is unavoidable. Skirting these warring friends are Cora’s companion, a staunch socialist, her autistic son Francis, her physician friend Luke Garrett and The Ambroses, moneyed and high-ranking conservatives. There’s a realness to all these people that is truly rare, no-one feeling as though they’ve been inserted to assist the plot or appearing not-quite-complete. For me, Luke Garrett is particularly vivid. There’s a palpable vibrancy about him, an intensity that borders on the audible.

Sometimes when writing these reviews I have to be very careful not to give away what a book is about. With The Essex Serpent, it’s hard to know where to start. Sarah Perry covers a monumental amount of ground with this book, it’s about so many things. Chief among them is that dark heart of the Venn diagram that is religion, science and superstition. Where does belief end and knowledge begin? Where is safety, where salvation? What’s truly exceptional about this book is that Sarah Perry asks those questions at every level, from the most intimate and individual to the broadest possible.

The language is glorious. There’s an almost biblical lilt to it at times, deepening the sense of place and moment, and heightening that creeping undertone that’s at the heart of the story. The passages that bring us up to date with recent events are prime examples of this. There’s a tone about them that could almost be tongue-in-cheek, relating the facts, filling us in. Yet that insidious voice lurks within them. Is it real, it asks, can you trust this? Is it what you think, or is it something else? Look at them, it says, back then on the verge of all that discovery. They thought they knew so much. But what about you? Do you think you know any more, any better?

One thing I can say for certain is that it’s an absolute delight to read, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t be appearing on any number of shortlists by the end of the year.


The Essex Serpent was published by Serpent’s Tail on 27 May 2016 ISBN:9781781255445

You can find Sarah Perry on Twitter @sarahgperry and on her website sarahperry.moonfruit.com


My thanks to Isabel Costello (who has a book of her own out, which you should also read) at the Literary Sofa for sending me this wonderful book.